Nevins is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and co-founder and board chairman of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
It’s much easier for politicians to simplify complex issues with words like “pro this” or “anti that” rather than deal with the complexities and nuances that are required to address the serious problems our nation and the world are facing.
Politicians get elected over and over again using sound bites to win over voters, so why change? Speaking in absolutes also engenders a sense of certainty and leadership when in fact there is typically uncertainty at the center of hard issues and great leaders accept and harness uncertainty rather than deny it.
So many voters, without even thinking, fall for this trap and are comfortable with being anti-mask or pro-mask, or pro-life or pro-choice, or pro-guns or anti-guns, or pro-immigration or anti-immigration.
How has the level of polarization in our country evolved to the point where we accept “pro” and “anti” without realizing that these terms push us further and further apart, preventing us from solving our problems?
Dave Anderson addressed this problem with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He argued that it was time to drop the terms “pro-Palestinian” and “pro-Israel” in The Fulcrum in December. Acknowledging there are short- and long-term issues in the overall conflict, Anderson addressed the problem when he wrote, “What would truly eliminate confusion is if people would first identify their overall position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
He went on to say:
The key is to know if someone thinks there is a way to create a map of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza that enables Jews and Palestinians to live in peace. This can be called the "Peaceful Coexistence Model." Thus someone can either stand for peaceful coexistence or not. Hamas, for one, is against the idea of peaceful coexistence. Iran is also opposed to the idea. The Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, have appeared for years to be for peaceful coexistence.
Anderson explained that sometimes the use of the terms “pro-Palestinian” and “pro-Israeli” does reflect an absolute conflict where someone is totally against the other side. Yet he pointed out that this language may conceal the fact that someone might agree with someone on the other side on the long-term solution even though they disagree about the short-term solution. Thus a pro-Palestinian person and pro-Israeli person may both support a two-state solution, but in the short-term they could take opposite sides over how Israel is prosecuting the war against Hamas.
The truth is that most of our domestic public policy problems are very complicated and could be resolved if the politicians, who are very polarized, were not so narrow-minded and unwilling to compromise. Public policy problems – ranging from immigration to climate control, child care to paid parental leave to entitlement reform – should not be "pro vs. anti" issues. There is a middle position on these issues, but the politicians refuse to find it.
The public, which is not as polarized as politicians in Washington, can take a step forward and stop using pro and anti language. It is our responsibility as citizens to rise above infighting and demagoguery, above the simplicity of the pro and anti rhetoric.
Our national challenges and problems are earnest, urgent and serious. Thomas Jefferson recognized that democracy was born from discourse and discussion, and that such resulting discussion would be replete with differing perspectives and opinions. For our Republic to survive ideological differences, we must lead with inquiry, and move from inquiry to resolving our challenges through compromise.
Each one of us must take it upon ourselves to foster the habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry within ourselves. If we as individuals make changes in how we communicate with each other, then we can call on politicians to do the same. And if we are not satisfied with how politicians respond to changes we make or our calls to them to resolve our pressing problems, then we should vote them out of office. For they only have power so long as we give it to them.